A frequent lament is that college students no longer know how to dress. The Ivy League is not immune to this criticism. Frederick Robertshaw, Yale class of ’55, when comparing his time at Yale to that of his sons, commented on the younger generation by observing that “campus fashions resemble casual day in a county jail.” The response from the Ivy brain trust is that challis neckties are no longer proper accoutrement to tweed, the default choice now is “a colostomy bag.” So the generational Mexican standoff continues.
What is worth examing is an earlier controversy from Frederick Robertshaw’s time at Yale. I had heard rumors of a dress code being instituted at Yale in the 1950s. Given that the boom years are often cited as the halcyon days, it begged the question of what kind of dress code, and why?
I dug through the Yale Daily News archives, and this is what I found.
On February 28, 1952, the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted that coat and tie would be worn at evening and Sunday midday meals in all dining halls operated by the university. This included the freshman commons, the college dining halls, and the graduate school. The law school, which was independently operated, was not included. That is the full extent of the dress code. Most colleges (houses) had voluntarily agreed to this practice. The holdouts were Davenport and Stillman Colleges.
Theodore M. Greene, master of Silliman College, said, “I had hoped that individual initiative would have made coats and ties universal in this College, but this does not seem to be the case.” According to the Yale Daily News, Greene had wanted “to avoid any such ruling but now welcomed it as it would neaten up the general appearance of the colleges involved.” Master of Davenport College Daniel Merriman supported the decision of the executive committee. He had personally observed an increase in “sloppiness” in student dress over the past two years. A. Margaret Bowers, Director of University Dining Halls, said, “This new rule gives the colleges a much more dignified atmosphere and it is not too much to ask that students be properly dressed for one meal every day.”
The Yale Daily News was in step with its former chairman, William F. Buckley, class of ’50, who advocated for the dining hall dress code during his tenure. The News called the rule “a good thing and conductive to a loftier degree of civilization in the manner and mores of the Yale animal.”
So what was the reaction among the ‘Yale animals’ to this dress code? It seems mixed. There was begrudging support, mock outrage and protest, charges of paternalism, as well as plenty of sophomoric satire. Silliman Council “cast a unanimous vote of censure of the method by which this ruling was enacted. This is not to say we are against the ruling. But we are most definitely against the undemocratic manner in which this coat and tie regulation was brought about, just as we take our stand against the paternalistic manner in which the cut system was reorganized and the authoritarian abolition of Derby Day.”
A group calling its self the Lower Court Vigilante Committee told the Yale Daily News, “The new tie rule is hated by people in Davenport (active haters number in the twenties).” There was also five members who protested on February 29th by wearing the university issued ties around their head. It’s a little hard to take their outrage completely seriously when they suggest the ties provided to the students came from the Aloha Shirt Company (controlled by a mother of an executive committee member), and that the rule was put in place to placate the York Street clothing lobby, which the Vigilante Committee claimed bribed a dean — with 14 striped ties.
If one is inclined to give this farce any credibility, it is dissuaded with talk of gunman in purple shirts and bomb threats on York Street. Another group of campus satirists, calling themselves Little Bohemia, suspect The New Haven haberdashers of even a more far-reaching and nefarious plan. They wrote, “The York Street Combine now seeks a ruling to require the wearing of matching pajamas in all college bedrooms.” They claim that 12 pairs of regimental pajamas in Davenport stripe have already been delivered to someone identified as the “expounder of the full man.”
George Rein, class of ’52, wrote to the YDN complaining that the rule was forcing sartorial orthodoxy. “They would have all of us dress alike, behave alike in class, and think alike,” he wrote, adding that it was “but another step in a growing demand for conformity and other manifestations of autocratic and paternalistic nature of Yale’s administrative body.” He then offered his apocalyptic vision of Yale: “There will come a time when all Yale men will dress like spooks on tap day, sit rigid in the classroom with sober vacant stares of mechanical men, file with military precision into the dining halls, and when we must not touch women or liquor after 6:30.”
The controversy peaked on March 15, 1952, when Harris L. Coulter ’54 wrote an editorial entitled “End of Nonsense?” He called the attacks on the rule silly, writing, “Any mind which can be so preoccupied with such little grievances obviously does not has not enough breadth to concern itself with bigger ones.” He begrudging admits that the Lower Court and Llittle Bohemia letters were funny, but adds, “that should have been the end of it of it.”
The Yale Daily News seemed to have had enough as well, agreeing with Coulter by quipping, “It is.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Top image, the Yale Glee Club, 1954.